It has now been almost a year since people around the world have been fighting to defeat COVID-19, which has already taken more than two million lives worldwide. Between lockdowns, preventive measures and new living methods, our lives have been totally transformed during 2020. While we are locked up, scientists and virologists are fighting to find solutions to overcome this global health crisis. Blasting News spoke with Astrid Vabret, professor of virology at the University of Caen, Normandy, and head of the department of virology at the Caen University Hospital Center.

On January 4, 2021, Vabret was decorated with the Legion of Honor for her commitment against the Coronavirus. Indeed, since the end of the 1990s, she has focused her research on the animal coronavirus but also the human one.

She therefore reveals in an exclusive interview with Blasting News that if she had expected a global health crisis, she "could never have imagined the response of societies to this pandemic, including lockdown and its economic and social consequences." Vabret explains to us how the virus spreads, what a variant is and answers the doubts of the most skeptical about the virus itself and the vaccination.

Blasting News: As a virologist specializing in the study of the coronavirus, you have received the Legion of Honor.

Does this show a new wave of recognition from the French government but also from the French people for the health and virology sector?

Astrid Vabret: I cannot say that I felt any change other than this decoration from the Ministry of Health. In general, when it comes to health, infectious diseases are not a highlighted topic.

We talk a lot about cancers and diseases of aging, but the infectious is something seen as "under control.” It is clear that we are experiencing an exceptional event where the virus is in the spotlight which has not happened to us since the Spanish flu, in 1918. However, the difference is that we were then at the end of the war.

So, unlike today, the media were not allowed to talk about it. Later, we had the HIV pandemic in the 1980s, but we will say it is not the same violence. With COVID, there is no “at risk” population, it affects everyone. This is why this is an atypical time.

You have been working on animal coronaviruses since the end of the 1990s. In 2006, you also wrote a thesis on the human coronavirus. How have your studies been received?

When I first started, virologists of my generation worked a lot on AIDS and hepatitis. Respiratory diseases were not very fashionable and coronaviruses even less. I did my dual medical and scientific studies to become a professor of virology. Whilst studying on my thesis topic, I worked a lot with veterinary virologists, who were more familiar with coronaviruses.

My research focused on the crossing of the species barrier and viruses that pass from animals to humans, a subject that was of no interest to anyone. I was therefore isolated on this research theme, even within my community.

Did you think that coronavirus was going to bring us to such a global health crisis?

No, at the beginning, we didn't know if this emergence would succeed. It was only when the virus started to arrive in Italy that we realized the gravity of the situation. We knew very well that it was going to be a global pandemic. We knew that it would be very difficult to control, but we could not imagine the response of societies to this pandemic, in particular lockdowns and their economic and social consequences.

The percentage of severe forms could not also be predicted.

Today there are English, Brazilian and South African variants of COVID-19. How do you explain the creation of 'variants' and how do they differ from the original virus?

The variants are specific to the biology of RNA viruses. To multiply, the virus comes in and takes over a cell, then uses it to copy its genetic code and has all its proteins and enzymes made by the infected cell, which also produces infectious viruses. The infected cell is a virus factory. It is important to know that when you copy a genome on top of a genetic code, there are mistakes. For DNA (as in humans, or DNA viruses), these errors are monitored and corrected, but RNA viruses use enzymes that are unique to the RNA world.

The problem is, these enzymes don't correct mistakes. So when the virus multiplies, it produces offspring of viruses that are not identical to it. The descendants will mostly resemble each other, but they will have differences: they are variants.

Following the production of these variants, a “dominant” variant will stand out: the one that multiplies the best in the environment where it is found. It will be transmitted from human to human and very quickly since it is transmitted by the respiratory route, an act that we do 24 hours a day.

What attitude should be taken in order to control these variants?

The important thing for these dominant variants is to see whether they impact transmission or pathogenicity and this is very difficult to demonstrate.

People know that viruses mutate, but what they do not fully understand is that it is complex and difficult to predict.

What is important is therefore virological surveillance. Unfortunately, prevention is very complicated because public or private money must be used to prevent an event that may never happen and which if it does, must be controlled. But when there are no disasters, money seems to be wasted. We must therefore argue to receive funding for virological surveillance.

The vaccine from Pfizer laboratory is a messenger RNA vaccine. A type of vaccine that was discovered in the 1990s. How is it different from the vaccines we know?

Messenger RNA is a technology that was already known before, but it had never arrived to its maturation and implementation in humans before.

It is a subtle technology in which the vaccine mimics a selected part of the genetic material of the virus. The RNA vaccine does not interfere with our genetic material because it stays in the cytoplasmic compartment of the cell. The good news is that according to the latest studies, immunization and protection are showing very good results. It’s subtle, but it’s not complicated to do.

Many people are skeptical that the vaccine was found so quickly. How can we explain this rapid development?

The vaccine is the weapon against this virus. This is the best way to immunize populations quickly to ensure that the circulation of the virus is controlled. So I would like to ask these people what the right timing is for them.

If we tell them ten years, that is too long, but a year is too short. People who say it was too fast are afraid it will be done badly, but it is a preconception that is not rational.

The Pfizer, which produces its vaccine against Covid-19 in partnership with the German group BioNTech, has announced that its deliveries of vaccines outside the United States will slow down at the end of January-beginning of February. Do you think this may have an impact on the spread of the virus on a European scale?

Pfizer has set up other centers, but the time to set them up will delay the production process. About 60% of the world's population must be vaccinated to see a slowdown in the spread of the virus, so it won't be right away, but we have to start somewhere.

The French government had shared targets for the end of January which they met. Afterwards, if you ask a virologist how he would vaccinate, it would be in ‘vaccinodromes’; places dedicated to vaccination against Covid, where we would do nothing but vaccinate. It would be done with a pistol to be effective.

What would be the attitude to adopt while waiting for the effects of the vaccine to appear?

With viruses it's never over. What you can do is learn to live with it. There is at the beginning of their emergence a period which may seem long when the virus will enter the human population with a more or less important collateral effect on mortality, the virus will then reach a balance. But to achieve this balance, it takes time, there are no magical effects!

I do not know what will be decided but the policy of living on the edge with cases of natural infections by continuing to vaccinate, while allowing economic activity, would provide this balance.

The difficulty is the length of the difficult period. The economic and social benefits are significant, with undeniable psychological suffering among a large part of the population. Nevertheless, the limitation of freedoms linked to the constraints of lockdowns or other restrictive measures, must be accompanied by patience. It is important to put these constraints into perspective with what happens in terms of war or natural disaster. Mental health is an important point in the fight against this pandemic.

What means are not sufficiently developed in your opinion for this health crisis to end?

There are about 80% of COVID-19 forms that are not very serious, 15% of forms that are serious, so we will be able to get by. It’s unbearable for us, but clearly it’s not a virus that will kill everyone. Compared to pandemics that occurred before, it turns out that we can counter the virus and avoid dying. The problem is that some countries don’t have developed health structures. People need to realize it and see that it can have an impact on us but also that it can have a benefit for everyone.

The health crisis was influenced by misinformation, which played an important role in the spreading of the virus with people not following health rules and preventive measures.

What is the attitude to adopt in order to convince the most skeptical of the existence of the coronavirus?

It’s very difficult to fight against that. It is a fairly simplistic thought structure and can even be a paranoid one.

Moreover, people who doubt are different, they are easier to convince than conspirators. Often, doubt is seen as the equivalent of intelligence, but one thing that is important is courage. When people say “I'm for the vaccine but I'd rather wait,” how long are they going to wait? The collective is not some sort of entity that we talk about and get out of when it suits us. For me, it is a courage to say, “Yes I have doubts because I do not know if there will be long term side effects, but there is a balance that is important for our society, for humans, and so I have the courage to do it.” If we have to convince people who doubt, it is by having this type of courage.